After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie
Jean Rhys was born in the small Caribbean island of Dominica and went to England when she was sixteen, not many years before the 1914 war. Two hundred or even 150 years ago, when the sugar colonies of the Caribbean were valuable and important, the white West Indian in Europe was better known. Smollet satirized jumped-up Jamaican slave overseers taking the waters in Bath; Captain Marryat’s father owned plantations and Negroes in Trinidad; Leigh Hunt was a Barbadian. But by the 1920s, when Jean Rhys began to write, the Caribbean and the Spanish Main belonged to antique romance; and the West Indian needed to explain himself.
Jean Rhys didn’t explain herself. She might have been a riddle to others, but she never sought to make her experience more accessible by making it what it was not. It would have been easy for someone of her gifts to have become a novelist of manners; but she never pretended she had a society to write about. Even in her early stories, of Left Bank life in Paris, she avoided geographical explicitness. She never “set” her scene, English, European, or West Indian; she had, as it were, no home audience to play to; she was outside that tradition of imperial-expatriate writing in which the metropolitan outsider is thrown into relief against an alien background. She was an expatriate, but her journey had been the other way round, from a background of nothing to an organized world with which her heroines could never come to terms.
This journey, this break in a life, is the essential theme of her five novels, Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), both recently reissued, Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and, though it is “historical,” set in the 1830s, and stands apart from the others, Wide Sargasso Sea (1967). The Jean Rhys heroine of the first four books is a woman of mystery, inexplicably bohemian, in the toughest sense of that word, appearing to come from no society, having roots in no society, having memories only of places, a woman who has “lost the way to England” and is adrift in the metropolis.
The women she meets are outsiders like herself, thrown off by organized society. They are, inevitably, cruder and less gifted; but they have been schooled by their society in the arts of survival. They have the saws and the supporting philosophy, the folk wisdom about men and money. “It might have been much worse.” “When you start thinking about things the answer’s a lemon…. But it’s no use worrying.” “Even if I have to do without, I still bank half of everything I get, and there’s no friend like that.” Men and money are connected: in this half-world men are the only people with money, and they are at once predators and prey, sexual partners, arbitrary providers of dinners, rooms, clothes. Their jobs remain vague, their larger, legitimate lives unknown. No homes are entered; the metropolis …